Monday, January 31, 2011

Frenchie Bistro Madness!

Few things make me happier than looking out into my living room and seeing tables filled with glasses of wine and chairs filled with guests, some of whom I know a little, some well, and others... not at all.

I know there are those who thrill to NASCAR, or to finding the perfect pair of shoes, or to a beautiful, deserted beach... Not me. I am endlessly revived by the act of hosting dinners in my home, by feeding people, by catching small glimpses into the lives of others, by sharing something I know (or, something I think I know), laughing my ass off, and, finally sending my guests off into the night, sated and probably a little drunk.

One of the things that makes me almost as happy as having people to dinner is French Bistro Food. I must have had a past life as a Frenchwoman.

Okay. Maybe not that Frenchwoman...

Yeah. More like that one.

I think Bistro food fucking rocks. It recalls a better time; A time when we had, well, TIME.

I am seduced by the sauces, the bold flavors, the butter, the herbs; The way the alchemy of the ingredients transcend the individual components, and create something new and beautiful. My descent into Frenchie Bistro Madness always starts with my craving a particular dish: Pommes Anna, for example, or Celery Root Remoulade. Country Paté, or Short Ribs Provençale... and, in this particular case, the craving was for the elusive (and rather difficult to prepare) Breton Butter Cake, or, Kouign Amman.

I first tasted Breton Butter Cake while working at Prune a few years ago, and the pastry chef at the time rocked it. The Kouign was crisp and buttery, and smelled of orange flower water, burnt butter and caramelized sugar, like a croissant that spent the night in a brothel. Divine.

The problem? Although subsequent pastry chefs at the restaurant baked Kouign Amman, following the same recipe exactly, very few of them did it correctly. We would get hyped up to try the special Breton Butter Cake for that night's dessert, only to taste it right before service started and be disappointed. We would put the biggest forkful of cake into our mouths that physics and manners would allow, then watch the look on each other's faces change from eager anticipation to deep disappointment and finally settle into neutrality. The cake might not have been as great as that first one had been, but no one wanted to hurt the talented and very hardworking pastry chef's feelings.

I often wondered what the deal was. How do some bakers create the perfect balance of aromatic, sugar and pastry, and others just end up with... leaden, buttery bread? There was only one recipe. Could it have been something in the way the dough was worked? Maybe the secret was adding a teensy bit more orange flower water? I wondered, but I never tried. I couldn't imagine the heartbreak of preparing it and failing, so I didn't. Until this dinner.

So, the morning I sent the invite to dinner, I was thinking of Breton Butter Cake, and wishing that the brothel-visiting croissant would make itself:

Hungry Kiddies!!

So much is happening this week, it leaves me sort of breathless! Day of the Dead/All Saints Day! The Election! Alternate Side Parking Cancelled today and tomorrow! Daylight Savings Time rolled back! The NYC Marathon!! It is almost too much to bear.

How can one lead a well considered, thoughtful life in this onslaught of events?

A booze soaked dinner among friends and strangers, that is how. And French Bistro Food, to boot.

So after you get done sleeping in on Sunday and enjoying that luxurious extra hour, and then cheering on the marathon runners with a cup of coffee laced with jack daniels- (hey, you should celebrate their accomplishment!), come on over for the original comfort food- Frenchie Bistro fare. I opened up this month's Saveur mag and was THRILLED to see an entire article on Paris Bistros, and now that Karl is off work I can draft him to make some seriously delicious country pate. And... I have ALWAYS wanted to attempt the uber frenchie Breton Butter Cake-- basically a baked Croissant with less flour, plus caramelized butter and orange flower water. Divine. Pray for me-- I think the reason that I have never tried it is that it is HARD. Without further delay... the menu:


Karl's Country Paté with Grain Mustard, Pickled Red Onions and Toast

Coddled Eggs with Spinach and Chanterelles


Celery Root Remoulade

Bitter Green Salad

Braised Short Ribs Provençal

Leeks Vinaigrette

Potato Galette (Pommes Anna)

Confit Carrots with Gremolata


Breton Butter Cake

As you can tell, as hard as it would be to make, Breton Butter Cake was really only one of several serious hurdles.

Once reason kicked in, the Leeks were abandoned in 'Good Idea In Theory - Bad Reality In Reality' land. I didn't feel too bad, as they looked like shit at the market.

The coddled eggs should really have been prepared in individual ramekins, but I don't own twenty-two individual ramekins, so I took a page from Sara Jenkins' Olives and Oranges, and baked the eggs all together in a big pan, with the spinach on the bottom, the eggs cracked into little divots I made in the spinach, and the cream/sherry-sauteed mushrooms poured over the top.

Once I determined the mechanics of putting it together (read: once I came up with a plan) the coddled egg dish became fast work.

The Pommes Anna (Potato Galette) was a pain in the ass, but mein gott is it delicious!

Thinly sliced potatoes, boiled until almost done, drained, dried out in a pan, out on the balcony (where it was cold), brought back inside, tossed in duck fat, then placed in a frying pan (or several frying pans in this case) with hot browning butter and olive oil). The potatoes were then smashed in the pan while they were frying, flipped á la Spanish Tortilla, and popped into the oven to finish.

Again, no walk in the park, time-wise, but then there's the payoff. Just when you are on the verge of, "are you fucking SERIOUS?" you pull a sizzling pan of golden fried, buttery, crisp potatoes out of the oven, pop a browned corner into your mouth and and realize the dish was Worth Every Miserable Minute You Spent Wondering If It Was Sticking & Burning. Trust me. Try this at home.

As you can see, I (wisely) outsourced the Country Paté to Karl in the invite. I often decide while writing a menu that some item needs to be assigned to him-- often it's ice cream or another dessert, sometimes it's paté.

Celery Root Remoulade, as it turns out, has become another one of my go-tos. Shredding peeled celery root in a food processor is a snap, then you can either blanch it in salted boiling water, or not, (I do, just for a minute, then drop it into chilled water, then pat dry.)

I make the remoulade with Hellmann's mayonnaise, sour cream, minced shallots, lemon juice & zest, salt, pepper, minced cornichons, capers and tarragon. Some recipes call for parsley, but I love the green anisette flavor that the tarragon gives. I hand toss the celery root in the remoulade and then let it hang out and mingle until I am ready for it.

The Confit Carrots And Fennel was very delicate-- perhaps in retrospect, too delicate for this meal, with all of the other bold flavors.

I just poached carrots and shaved fennel in duck fat in the oven for an hour at about 250º, so the vegetables were cooked through but still maintained a bit of their crunch, with lemon zest, cumin, and a touch of cayenne to lift it a bit.

There was bitter green salad,

The Short Ribs Provencale was... how do you say... fucking delicious! This dish is one of the best examples of the infinite beauty of TIME. Time, particularly in the kitchen as in the rest of life, is a luxury, and once it's gone you can't have it back. When you can actually harness it to work for you the results can be amazing. And I am not just talking about in the kitchen...


I seared the short ribs, and followed up with a sauté of onions, garlic, rosemary, and thyme.

I then deglazed the pan with red wine, returned the shortribs, added whole canned tomatoes and their juice, sealed the pan tight with foil and then put the lid on and slipped the whole thing in a 300º oven for five hours. This method leaves you lots of time to read the newspaper, hit the gym, cheer on marathoners, have sex... really, any other important stuff you want to accomplish, and the best part is that you get a fantastic dinner at the end, AND you can drive your neighbors insane with the gorgeous smells drifting into their apartments.


So, the Kouign Amman. Well, let's just say I really gave it my all. At one point, Karl and I were scratching our heads over the recipe in Madeline Kamman's "When French Women Cook", which, due to the work-intensive nature of its recipes, we fondly refer to as, "When French Women Cook With Servants."

Anyway, we were kept rereading the recipe which described rolling and folding the butter cake dough a very specific way, but between the two of us we couldn't figure out what in the hell she meant.
"Fold the bottom of the dough toward the center, then the top to cover the bottom. Turn the dough by 90 degrees so that it will now look like a book ready to be opened... Turn the dough over and give it a second turn..."
And it went on like that for a half page. Awesome. Two post-grad educated adults and we couldn't break it down. Karl decided that it was either a translation problem from the French, or a differential calculus problem and we worked through it as reasonably as we could.

In the end, we now know that we should have just treated it like croissant dough, and maybe not worked it so hard, and most likely it wouldn't have come out so, um, leaden.

So, I count it as a half win, since it tasted AMAZING, but it certainly wasn't the Breton Butter Cake of my dreams.

But, now that I know how to do it correctly, (now that I THINK I know...) the next time should be a snap, right? The biggest problem with French food is that, once I begin to prepare it, and remember how difficult it is in relation to the other kinds of food I do, it cures me of the desire for a while.

At least.

Lovely, though, to be reminded through the preparation of luxurious food that Time is the biggest luxury of all.